Defense Secretary Hagel visits Charleston Air Force Base, says more cuts to come

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrives at Charleston Air Force Base on Wednesday. Buy this photo

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel barnstormed into the Charleston Air Force Base to deliver sobering news: More budget cuts are coming that could affect Lowcountry military jobs far into the future.

Promising never to lie or mislead the men and women of the Pentagon, Hagel on Wednesday painted a picture of a leaner military and a Congress eager to roll back spending.

“Regardless of what happens in 2014, this institution is going to be living with less,” Hagel said during a 30-minute town-hall-type gathering.

“We don't have any choice,” he told the 300 employees assembled. “Something's got to happen.”

Hagel's warning came during a four-hour tour of the base and as more than 4,000 Charleston-area Department of Defense employees are in the second week of their mandated sequestration furloughs.

It was also his first visit to the Lowcountry as head of the Pentagon. The visit exposed him to C-17 engine work, medical evacuation procedures, bomb-detection teams and combat camera crews.

During his talk, Hagel said there is nothing to sugarcoat about the budgetary future ahead. The military normally would face a cyclical reduction that goes with winding down two wars, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.

But he said adding to the new period of uncertainty is the question of whether Congress will continue the automatic sequestration cuts. For the Pentagon it means trimming about $500 billion over the next 10 years.

The current round of reductions is set at $37 billion, with another $52 billion projected to kick in for 2014.

Hagel, a former Nebraska senator, called the sequestration “a mindless, irresponsible process,” and called on Congress to find something better. He left the Senate in 2009, before the sequestration cuts were adopted.

Wednesday's appearance came as Hagel tours of Atlantic region bases, including in North Carolina and Florida, for three days.

He did not take questions from the press who followed him around the base Wednesday, and the media was not allowed to interview members of the civilian working staff who took part in the town hall event.

During the session, one man asked about the future of medical benefits, while another woman told of having to get a second job during the sequestration furloughs. She worried about the future of her job and keeping a security clearance as work time is cut. Hagel's answer was that he could not get into specifics.

Currently, DOD employee furloughs are keeping them home from work one day out of every five without pay for 11 weeks through September. In the Charleston area, the furlough is affecting a minimum of 4,300 government workers directly.

Before the town hall meeting, Hagel toured various sites on the air base, stopping to chat with members of Air Force bomb disposal teams.

“What do you think about the Afghan forces?” he asked Staff Sgt. Johnathan Baxley of James Island.

“They're getting a lot better guys,” Baxley told him. “Quality guys.” Previously, the Afghan army ranks had been infiltrated by Taliban supporters known to turn on Americans, Baxley said. But the screening process has improved, he said.

Senior Airman Robert Hardy told Hagel he wanted to make sure the battlefield cooperation continues between his explosive-ordnance disposal work and the Army's Special Forces in places like Afghanistan.

He called their combined work “physically and mentally challenging,” but worthwhile in weeding out Taliban bombs.

Airman reservist Jonathan Liebherr, of Moncks Corner, a heavy-equipment operator with the 560th Red Horse construction unit, told Hagel the sequester has the potential to affect his readiness, since training — in which he would embed with full-time units — is being reduced too.

“There's really no other training out there” a reservist can get, Liebherr said.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.

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